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U.S. Ramps Up Wild Horse Roundups In Drought-Stricken West

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Throughout this hour, we've been following how the rain and wind from Hurricane Ida is punishing the Southeast. But we can't forget that all this is happening while the West is experiencing severe drought, and that drought is not just affecting humans. Wild horses are dying due to a lack of water. The federal government is trying to save them by rounding them up and adopting them out across the country. But as Nevada Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports, it might not be the solution it appears to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: A black helicopter swoops past a group of wild horses running across western Utah's High Desert. It's mid-morning and already hot. The helicopter is trying to herd them into a corral. Lisa Reid is watching the action while sitting on a blanket under an umbrella.

LISA REID: The helicopter works like a sheepdog. It works the horses from side to side, guiding them to the direction that he wants them to go.

HEGYI: Reid is with the Bureau of Land Management. Right now, her agency is in the middle of a huge emergency campaign to get roughly 6,000 wild horses like these out of the desert and into private stables or pastures across the country. That's because the drought in the West is so severe this summer that it's killing horses.

REID: People want to say let Mother Nature take its course. But, boy, that's the stuff nightmares are made of.

HEGYI: Reid remembers reading reports about a small group of wild horses who died from dehydration during the West's last severe drought two decades ago.

REID: There was one foal that was still alive. And it was nursing off of a dead mom. That's heartbreaking.

HEGYI: The wild horses rounded up today are faring better, but not by much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE GRUNTING)

HEGYI: At a nearby corral, some of the mares look gaunt.

REID: You can see their ribs and their hip bones. And that is definitely a direct impact from the drought.

HEGYI: Unlike other desert critters, such as bighorn sheep or mule deer, the federal government can't just let wild horses die off. They're protected under a 50-year-old federal law. It mandates a set number of healthy horses living on healthy rangelands. But lately, the BLM has argued that there are too many wild horses on those rangelands. That's creating unhealthy conditions, and the drought is just making things worse. So they're rounding them up and adopting them out.

DUANE OLDHAM: It's different than picking up a puppy at the pound.

HEGYI: That's Duane Oldham. He owns a wild horse sanctuary on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

OLDHAM: I don't recommend that you watch one YouTube video and go try to do it.

HEGYI: Instead, he says, the horses are often adopted by experienced handlers, such as ranchers or sheepherders. They also sometimes go to small stables and places as varied as Houston or West Virginia. But not every adopted horse makes it to a happy home.

SUZANNE ROY: The roundups lead to slaughter. There's just no way of getting around it.

HEGYI: Suzanne Roy is executive director of the nonprofit American Wild Horse Campaign. She says the problem stems from the BLM's adoption incentive program. A year after adopting a horse, the government pays owners $1,000.

ROY: What people are doing is they're collecting the cash incentive. And as soon as the money clears their banks, they're sending the horses to the slaughter auction.

HEGYI: Slaughtering horses is banned in the United States. But these animals are bought at auctions, also known as sell barns, and then sent to Canada or Mexico, where slaughter is legal. In July, the BLM implemented tougher screening measures to try and weed out bad adopters. But after a year, the animals become private property, and the agency doesn't have oversight anymore. Still, the BLM says a vast majority of adopted wild horses don't end up at these sell barns. They go to good homes.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in western Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.